More bad news for James Watt

2nd February 2007 at 00:00
A leaked copy of an official investigation into the college reveals a damning list of mismanagement and massive debt

The management of James Watt College, under former principal Professor Bill Wardle, sanctioned overseas trips to 22 countries over three years at a cost of pound;71,808 (out of pound;224,800 spent on travelling) - and the end result was a massive drop in international student numbers, from 93 to 27.

The news did not get any better for the college this week as a leaked copy of an official investigation on behalf of the Scottish Funding Council revealed a damning catalogue of mismanagement along with a "spend, spend"

culture, "errant" cost control, "blatant" waste and a "bloated" senior management structure.

The tenor of the report by the SFC's further education development directorate (Fedd), which was set up to help colleges in trouble, had already emerged in the recovery plan drawn up by Graham Clark, the interim principal (TESS, January 19 and 26).

But the scale of the previous management's defects is becoming clear in detail, as the Fedd report identified other spending, such as pound;30,000 on a "lavish" refurbishing of the vice-principal's office and pound;50,000 on a Mercedes minibus. The previous management was described as "dysfunctional", presiding over a "dismal" financial performance, "poor"

forecasting and a "simmering blame culture". Staff morale was at "a very low ebb" and relations with the unions were "hostile and caustic".

The Fedd inquiry even discovered that various reports were withheld from the board of management, and it was not given accurate financial information.

The executive management style was seen as "aloof, haughty and inconsistent", the report continues. The Fedd pointed to key characteristics noted in failing colleges: an over-dominant principal, an under-performing second tier below that and "a well-meaning but under-demanding board unable to manage the executive".

The report comments: "James Watt College does fit this mould."

The mismanagement appears to have been at the most basic of levels, with "quite limited" connections between the college's strategic plan, operational planning and the budget, and "poor" links between curriculum, finance and HR (where there was no accurate information on staffing).

These criticisms will infuriate the unions who see their members' jobs being put on the line to pay for management mistakes. The pound;130,000 pay-off for Professor Wardle has done little to assuage their sense of grievance.

The recovery plan, on which consultations with the unions and others kicked off on Monday, calls for the shedding of up to 48 staff posts to begin the process of reducing the college's pound;6.8 million debt.

The Fedd report reveals that an operating deficit of above pound;2m in 2004-05 is likely to have reached more than pound;3m in 2005-06.

The report describes as "one-dimensional" the previous management's response to the crisis which escalated at the college, "in effect, to engage in a series of restructuring programmes involving voluntary severance arrangements" - which is, ironically, a key element in the current proposals for recovery.

Although these plans concentrate on staffing and curriculum changes, the Fedd report is in little doubt that further "root-and-branch reform" will be necessary. This would require shedding not just staff but also buildings, "to include the possibility of major asset disposal in order to generate cash to address the acute liquidity difficulties".

The college's liabilities exceed its assets by pound;3 million.

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